The WHL trade deadline is now just 5 weeks away and big names have started to move around the league as teams make their final roster alterations for the second half run.
There aren't many teams that can be considered 'out of it' - perhaps only one in fact, but if they don't turn their season around in a hurry, the buzzards will start to circle the Oil Kings looking to pick the meat from their bones.
I recently had a chance to speak with GM Bob Green and tried to take a pulse of the team.
Many pundits expected the Oil Kings to not only make the playoffs but do so comfortably, not coming close to the single game playoff they needed last year to reach the post season in 2008-09. (Hell, I had them 5th in my pre-season prognostications!)
Unfortunately, things haven't worked out that way. Alan Caldwell's excellent Small Thoughts at Large noted earlier this year that through the first month of play, the Oil Kings were playing the toughest schedule.
Then the team was faced with more than their fair share of injuries (including 7 concussions) and sickness which really crushed the team's ability to, not compete, but win. It sounds like an excuse but really, that much damage to a roster would have huge ramifications for any team. Add to the fact that WHL class defencemen Kieran Friesen and Henrik Tervonen (pictured) have both left the team and quit playing hockey... and things are even worse.
"It’s the nature of the beast," Green sighed, "Sometimes kids just get to the point here they’ve had enough or they just don’t see it going anywhere for themselves. I don’t think it was an easy decision for either kid. There are always underlying factors with decisions like that we’re not going to talk about but the bottom line is that both of those kids didn’t see this as something that they wanted to pursue anymore and we have to respect that. It’s a big loss with one 17 and one 18-year-old kid and we considered both to be pretty big parts of the future here."
Some players have performed well this year; a healthy Tomas Vincour is having a career year and netminder Cam Lanigan is creating confidence. Mark Pysyk has looked like a 1st round NHL pick and rookie Michael St. Croix has found his form after a slow start. Others, like Brett Breitkreuz, have struggled more than expected.
"He was so well prepared coming in that I’m sure that he’s disappointed," Green said of Breitkreuz after a strong summer, "He had a lot of expectations and so did everyone else and sometimes those are hard to meet. He played an unbelievable game in Kamloops the other night and although he didn’t get rewarded for it on the score sheet, he was our best forward. Other nights it hasn’t been that way. He’s playing for a contract at this point in time so he’s just got to keep plugging away at it and see where things end up."
Edmonton has just one win in their last ten outings, only 4 wins in their last 26 games. They currently sit 11th in the 12-team Eastern Conference with 24 points in 31 games played. Last place Lethbrdige has three games in hand, enough to potentially overtake the Oil Kings if two of them end as Hurricane victories. The team has blown third period leads and has really struggled in the special teams department. Edmonton's PP is worst in the league and the PK ranks 18th out of 22 teams.
Not to make light of the problems, which are plentiful, but perhaps a pep talk ala Will Forté and Peyton Manning is long overdue. (Trust me... you'll laugh).
While I don't think anyone is fearful like Manning in that skit, I'm sure that frustration has to be rampant in the organization right. It begins at the top with GM Green but filters down through head coach Steve Pleau and on to the players.
I asked Green if there was pressure on the coach considering the team's dismal record in light of all the injuries and sickness they've had to contend with. You'll have to tell me if the GM has given anyone a mulligan for this season.
"I think there is pressure on all of us," Green deflected. "We’re not happy with the way things have gone, we think our team was better regardless of all the things that have happened and we still think we’re a better team than our record shows."
"The game against Moose Jaw was pretty evident the way things finished up," he continued, "The kids want to win so bad, we have a great group of kids that work hard every day and they’re diligent with everything that we ask them to do. It’s tough on everybody and sometimes I think they’re trying too hard to win and it works against you because you get tight and nervous when games are on the line. Sooner or later we’re going to get results and with a little confidence we’ll see where we can go with it."
Between now and the Jan. 10th deadline is the World Junior Championship - they'll be without Tomas Vincour for that stretch. The World U17s are also on at the end of the month and they'll be without St. Croix and Travis Ewanyk for that week as well.
Green and his staff will soon have to decide whether or not to fish or cut bait. Have the calls started coming in to Green's office?
"At this time of year people are kicking tires but after Christmas things start to heat up with the January 10th trade deadline coming," he said, "We take calls but it’s guys mostly kicking tires to see where we’re at and to see if we’re going to do anything."
I am wondering, at this point, how critical is making the playoffs for the Oil Kings this year? Of course that's the plan; everyone plays the game to at least get that far but I wonder if it's even more important for a team in Edmonton's situation. The team has stagnated in regards to ticket sales and failing to reach the postseason after doing so last year might be viewed as though the club has regressed. Would finishing worse than 8th place mean a loss in fans next year even if Green engineered deals that set the team up better for the future? I think it's a valid concern but the GM has more faith in the public than I do.
"[The fans] want to see improvement too and that you’re trying to get better. In this situation I think that most people who follow junior hockey understand that there is a 3-year turnover on players on average and that in this situation, that’s what you do. What you can’t do with [Raedeke, Jung, Breitkreuz] is just make deals for the sake of making deals – you have to get something back that is going to help you next year or the year after. If you can’t improve for next year or the year after than certainly you’re not going to do anything."
If a strategy of trading off departing assets for future betterment is not in the cards, can the team make the playoffs as is? The standings would suggest no. The schedule does get better in the second half for the Oil Kings who will play 11 of their last 15 games at home. However, by that point, they could be so far out of the playoff picture that it won't matter.
Brent Raedeke - Leads the team with 27 points and his plus-8 rating is also a team high and just took part in the Subway Super Series for team WHL (below). The 19-year-old could technically return to the WHL next year but because the Detroit Red Wings have already signed him to an entry level deal, I would be surprised if they didn't send him to Grand Rapids on the WHL instead. It's possibly, the Wings are known for not rushing their prospects, but I don't think the Oil Kings expect he'll be available to them next year.
"That’s something that we don’t know," Green told me, "That’s a conversation that we’re going to have to have with [Detroit]. In my mind I would suspect that they’d probably want him in the AHL next year but that’s something that we don’t know for sure. I know they like him a lot and like where he’s at [in his development] so I think that would be the natural progression for him."
What could Raedeke legitimately bring the Oil Kings back in return? In November 19-year-old Eric Mestery went back to Tri-City from Lethbridge in exchange for a 2nd round draft pick... would that be about equal value? Who might be in the market for a solid 2nd line center? I think the Spokane Chiefs would make a terrific partner - both Mitch Wahl and Kyle Beach suggested to me that they felt they were one or two additions away from being a contending team. How about Kelowna?
I asked Raedeke if he thinks about the potential of being dealt considering he's more than likely done with the WHL after this season.
"No, not really. I want to help the team make it to the playoffs if we can," said Raedeke, "I think that with the group that we have we definitely have a chance to make it to the playoffs. We've just been so snake bit lately and haven't been getting any breaks. If we keep working hard we'll start winning some games."
Torrie Jung - we've talked a few times about Jung and speculated about his worth. Kurtis Mucha only gained Portland a 4th round pick from Kamloops... I don't think Jung is regarded as a more valuable commodity that Mucha so more shouldn't be expected. The bigger question becomes who has room to add a 20-year-old and a need to upgrade in net? Perhaps the Chiliwack Bruins but they'd have to unload an overage player at the same time. Kelowna could by simply dropping Mark Guggenberger who hasn't played a game for them this year. What about Medicine Hat who have a young tandem carrying the load right now but 3 key over-agers? The Broncos have a pair of 19-year-olds, neither are as good as Jung, but 3 other over-agers already. Tri-City perhaps... but they'd need to ditch a 20-year-old too which is a possibility for Green.
"If that situation arose and it was the right person then yes, we would look at that," Green admitted, "Sometimes you just have to do that for the other team that is taking your guy providing you get what else you want back. We don’t want to bring in the wrong people here."
Brett Breitkreuz - I don't think he's had the year anyone expected and yet he'd be a decent addition for a team that has a hole on the wing. Breitkreuz has just 15 points this year, well off his point production from last year when he finished with 55 points in 72 games. The problem is again, that he's a 20-year-old which limits the trade partners for the Oil Kings.
To me, those are the few trading chips Edmonton has. The question is, should the team hold onto them and try and push themselves back into the playoff race or take the foot off and improve for the future. The Saint John Sea Dogs traded away key players last year and this season they are the top team in the QMJHL. These Oil kings aren't on the same level as Chris Didomenico or Alex Grant but it's still food for thought.
Two injured Oil Kings might still have a future with the club. Colton Stephenson has been sidelined for all but 1 games this year thanks to a nasty concussion.
"He’s been a while now without symptoms but we’re trying to be careful with him," said Green, "He’s got a lot to go through and you get to the point where it’s probably better for the kid in the long run to just take the season off. There’s a protocol that Paul Kariya went through with his last concussion with strengthening his neck and then going to an off-ice regime and then hopefully getting on the ice next summer then when he comes to camp he’s completely healed and ready to go."
Also out with a concussion is defenceman Jesse Pearson who is sorely missed because of the toughness he brings to the line up on a nightly basis.
"Jesse could return as early as February but that’s a situation that we’re going to have to assess the same way," said the GM.
At least there is some good news from Oil Kings camp these days.
(Photos Courtesy: Edmonton Oil Kings, Andy Devlin, WHL.com)